December 8, 2016 | ISSUE no 204
crack the spine
Maximilian Harry Schramel
Tracy M. King-Sanchez
Todd J. Donery
The Black Mask
by Brett Connors
Ash crumbles from the tip of the cigarette as I stare out the window into the night. A knock comes at the door and a woman enters. Smoke drifts on the air of my office like fog. Turning to face her, I take a swallow of amber whiskey and place the glass on my hard, oak desk.
“Detective?” she asks, clutching her leather purse in both hands, holding it tight against her stomach. She closes the door and takes a step closer, her heels clacking on the wooden floor.
Moonlight filters through the shades on the window, drawing my shadow across the desk. My fingers play with the silver lighter sitting on my desk, spinning it slowly in a circle. “James Rook,” I say. “What can I do for you?” I lift the brim of my gray fedora to get a better look at the dame. This is a case I can’t turn down. Gesturing with the cigarette, I offer her the chair across the desk.
“Thank you,” she says softly, taking a seat. “My name is Abigail Madison. I—My husband disappeared, and the police won’t do anything.”
Hot smoke fills my lungs, which I chase with another swig of whiskey. “I will take your case. I’ve always had a tender spot for affairs of the heart.” Her breast rises and falls with each short breath; I can almost see her pulsing heart through her dress.
Turning back to the window, I gaze at the streets and find a billboard for yet another ADHD remedy. Absently I tell her, “Given our recent string of disappearances, I would not be mistaken to presume your husband must certainly be the current Walmart store manager. Or at least he was until, like the three managers before him, he vanished without a trace. You have come to me to locate him because you are worried and because the police don’t consider a person missing until forty-eight hours have passed.” As I return to the desk I stub my cigarette into the ashtray.
Slim tears escape from the corners of Mrs. Madison’s eyes. She stares, her lower lip trembling, her forehead scrunched. Her hand flies to her mouth, holding back her emotions, and when it moves I see it has rubbed away some of her sensual ruby lipstick. Shaking her head, she stares at her feet, golden strands of hair falling in front of her face.
I cross to her and let her weep into my chest. Rubbing her bare shoulders, I tell her I will help track down her missing husband. “I will find him,” I promise. “I would not see another family broken. That is, if he is still alive.”
“Th-thank you,” she musters. Sniffling, she pulls a lanyard from her purse and pushes the photo I.D. across the desk. “This is Tony,” she says, tapping the picture. Older than his young wife, Tony Madison had developed early lines around his eyes and mouth. A thin strap of beard wrapped around his jawline from ear to ear, a lighter shade of brown than his curly hair. “Tony didn’t come home from work last night,” she continued. “I haven’t seen him today, and work called in when he didn’t show up.”
I finish off the glass of whiskey, enjoying the smoky flavor and the sear in my throat. I pour another and look her in the eyes as I return to my seat. “Mrs. Madison, I must inform you that cases like this almost always end up with a bored husband fleeing his domestic life, usually with another woman.” I down the glass again.
She wipes water from her eyes, sobbing quietly. The thin strap of her dress slides down her milky skin as she shudders, trying to hold back tears. “My dear, if you need anything, I am here for you.” I lift her chin to stare into her eyes. “If you need, I can stay with you tonight. It would be my pleasure to provide you comfort in this time of distress.”
“No, no, I—” She wipes more tears and looks at my glass. Taking a deep breath, she says, “I’ll…be fine on my own. But do you think I could have a glass of water?” “Sorry, I don’t have any water” I say, plucking another cigarette from the band on my fedora. “I just drink whiskey.”
“Detective James Rook,” I say, showing the girl my P.I. license. “I’d like to ask you a few questions about your manager, Tony Madison.”
“Of course,” the girl says. The stockgirl’s nametag reads EMILY. A store-issued vest covers her sweater-blouse, adorned with the store’s promotional pins and a smiley face sticker. High school age; she must be skipping class to work. She wears her thick hair short to frame her face, which is dotted with dark freckles and hidden behind a pair of black-rimmed glasses. Hoop earrings dangle from detached lobes, and a tight metal wristlet chokes the skin of her wrist, paling her whole hand. Certain traits remind me of the daughter I left behind years ago.
This girl wants to help because she is afraid—dilated pupils, nervous blinking, shortened breath—but not afraid because she knows something. Perhaps because she views Madison as a friend or father figure, more so than boss, and worries about his safety. Plausible, considering none of the other missing managers have been found yet.
“When did you last see Mr. Madison?”
“Last night,” she says, “after his shift ended at nine.” A stock pallet sits on the floor beside her, steeped with boxes of children’s toys. As we talk, she arranges items on the shelves.
“Did he say anything to you before he left? Did you observe anything strange?”
Emily frowns. “Nothing unusual. There was a boy, though.” Stopping, she fidgets with a box of dolls in her hands. Then she looks at me. “I was on cart duty last night, you know, moving carts back to the cart return. But there was a boy about my age waiting by Tony’s car.”
A boy. Interesting. “Tell me about the boy.” I grab the small notepad and pen from my coat pocket. “What did you notice about him?”
“I was far away; I couldn’t see much. But…” She looked over her shoulder and took a step closer to me, lowering her voice. “If you ask me, it was that no-good son of his, Brian. Tony doesn’t like that he buys our recreational marijuana at least once a week, but a month ago, Tony caught him doing lines in the back alley and went ballistic. He yelled at Brian for half an hour.”
True, Abbey Madison told me they do have a delinquent son. Brian had been grounded since the cocaine incident and was locked in his room every night. His mother never checked on him until the mornings just before school. It would have been easy for him to sneak out his window last night to kidnap his father, if this girl’s allegations were true.
Thin tears spring from her eyes. Her arms begin shaking and she drops a heavy box on the floor. As the cardboard rips open, a large dollhouse hits the ground and cracks down the middle. She hides her face in her hand. “I should have kept an eye on him. We’ve been so concerned about all of these disappearances, but I didn’t think—I didn’t know what I was seeing. It felt like a normal night.”
Damn. Comfort the girl, stop her crying. “You’ve done everything you can. This information will be very helpful in solving this case. Is there anything else you can tell me?”
Trying to wipe away her tears, she leans to pick up the broken toy house. I help her to be polite, and also so I can look her in the eyes. There’s something else. She says finally, “I remember looking back at them. Brian was gone, and Tony was in the car, but there was a shadow in the back seat. Like someone was in the car with a gun, telling him where to drive. So when he didn’t come in to work today, I called the police to tell them what I saw, but…”
“But they discounted your evidence as speculation,” I offer. “Without a security camera pointed in that direction, they would hesitate to take a young girl like you at her word.”
Emily wipes her nose and stands to look me straight on. “I know what I saw, detective.”
I nod. “I’ll catch the bastard.”
The hunch: apprehend Tony Madison in his car and use it as the escape vehicle, or transport to the scene of the crime. More likely the latter. The boy, if he is indeed Brian Madison, would certainly know his father’s pre-owned Toyota in the parking lot. Hiding out to ambush him would be simple. The crime itself would take place elsewhere—given that no bodies have been found, the abductors are dumping the bodies somewhere hidden, or somewhere vast. Like the woods just south of the town.
Travelling southbound along Sticks Road, I discover a dirt turnoff leading into the woods. Deep, fresh tire treads tell me a car had driven into the woods recently. The only person interested in driving out there would be the son of a bitch abductor. Following the trail of crushed vegetation leads me to Tony Madison’s abandoned sedan, parked in a thicket of trees. The car points westward, so I walk its trajectory for ten minutes until I come upon a circular clearing.
Severed stumps rise from the ground all around me, cut flat like sylvan tables. Pollen sits heavy on the cool air, stinging my sinuses. My eyes search for another clue. Grass, black as night, crunches beneath my shoes. A breeze whips the tails of my trench coat behind me as I creep through the glade.
Moments later I hear voices. Turning off the flashlight, I sneak by moonlight to the edge of the clearing and duck behind a thick redwood. Lit torches approach, hoisted by small figures in black robes stalking past the stumps. The lead shadow floats like a wraith through the glade, pausing before a low-hanging tree. It drew a long blade from its cloak and slashed at the trunk. A rope. A heavy, camouflaged sack hits the earth at its feet. The wraith turns to its convent and shouts, “Tonight, once again, is our night of liberty, my brothers!” Its weak voice carries on the wind to my ears, as does the cheering. As it drags the sacks towards a large, slab-like stump in the center of the glade, I see no skin or face, only shadow.
My watch reads midnight. Grabbing a pair of binoculars from a side pocket, I observe the black cloaks surround the wraith as it slices open the sack, revealing the beaten and bruised face of Tony Madison. Son of a bitch, I got him. My hand fondles the revolver in its shoulder holster.
Two black cloaks haul him onto the stump, slamming him on his stomach. A cloth gags his mouth, and two ropes bind his hands and feet. Blotches of blood have bloomed on his shirt. One eye swollen, his hair greasy and lank from sweat. They must have been holding him captive since last night.
As the wraith stands over his body, yanking his head up by the hair and lowering the machete to his throat, I leap into the clearing and level my gun, pumping a slug into his torso. “Everyone else, put your hands in the air or I shoot!” I shout.
Screeching with horror, the black cloaks scatter at the sight of their dead leader. But they don’t go far—my gun keeps them in check.
“This man has a son. Would you sick fucks take him from his family like this? I don’t care. Just one of you make a move. Give me an excuse to put you in the ground, too.”
No one moves. I can’t shoot them all. We stand at odds for another few minutes until the dead leader groans. God damn it all. But before I can shoot him again, we hear the dogs barking. Not far off, closing in. Small town police are quick responders. It’s only been five minutes since I saw the black cloaks and sent a GPS ping, before I jumped in to nail ‘em. Another minute and we’ll all be surrounded.
Hearing the dogs, Madison starts squirming on the stump, trying to break free. Hoods fall as the figures stumble in panic, revealing boyish teenage faces. They look back and forth, near tears, resigned to their fates.
Police in navy uniforms stampede the glade and begin slapping handcuffs on the boys. I holster my gun as a lieutenant approaches me, a burger in hand. “Detective,” he says through bites of his Big Mac, “good to see you again. Thanks for the ping.”
“Buckley,” I say, shaking his free hand.
“The force misses you and your skills,” he spits cheerily. “This is good work you did.”
Dropping my head, I stare at him from beneath the brim of my fedora. “This job suits me better.”
“Ha! Always liked to play by your own rules.” He claps me on the shoulder and says softly, “I miss you, pal.”
Cops wrangle and cuff the teenage criminals behind him. “My door’s always open, you know that.”
“Well, I’d love to have you over for dinner one of these nights. Edith’s making a pot roast on Sunday if you’d like to join. I can ask her to bring a friend from church so you’ll have some company,” he adds, grinning and elbowing me stupidly in the ribs.
“I don’t play those games anymore,” I say. “You know that.”
Buckley frowns, licking his fingers and wrapping up the burger to put back in his pocket. “Shoot, you’ve got to forgive yourself for that. It’s been nine years. Robyn might not want to see you again, but Susie will. Head on back there. She won’t stop you from seeing your daughter.”
Not after the way I left. Infidelity aside, I broke our family. I stay silent.
Shouting breaks the silence. An officer has the wraith pinned beneath her knee, cinching the handcuffs around its wrists. “Tyrants!” it shouts. “Rob me and my brothers of our freedom yet again! We rise from beneath the yoke of your oppressive society!”
“Shut up,” the officer says to it, “or we’ll put you out cold.”
“You will never silence me! You may kill me, but I am only one. We millennials are a lost generation because of despots like you. We have no art but the smiling yellow logos of corporate dictators! We have no literature but the garbage produced to sell blockbuster film rights! We have no cinema but commercials and sound bites! We have no journalism but the fearmongering peddled by franchised news stations! We have engorged ourselves from the greasy teat of fast food! We have matured during the age of the price war! We treasure trivial merchandise forced upon us by sales and inbred greed! We have—”
A loud crack shuts him up. The officer pulls her billy club from the back of his head. “That’ll keep you good and quiet,” she says.
Another officer stoops to pick up the machete lying in the grass. He uses it to cut Tony Madison’s binds and then helps him to his feet.
“Nutcase,” Buckley says as the officer drags the wraith before us, its head hanging limp.
“Lieutenant,” she says. “They’re boys, sir, no older than my son. Can you believe that? What the heck did they think this would accomplish? Other than throw away their futures.”
Shaking his head, Buckley says, “Who knows. Maybe they thought they could drive Walmart out of town. Hell, maybe they were just trying to make a statement. Guess we’ll find out in interrogation—still have to find the other four. Or their bodies, at least.”
She nods glumly and then hands Buckley a large leather slip. “This one, with the knife, he was their leader. He was wearing this.”
I can see his face now, uncovered. Shadows under the eyes, a shiner on his cheek. Not the face of Brian Madison. Not the face of anyone significant. Disappointing.
“We appreciate your work, sir,” the officer says to me. “Thanks for helping us catch these loons. Heck of a shot: two inches lower and the bullet would have gotten his heart, I’d say.”
“Not as good a shot as I used to be,” I say. “Maybe he’ll bleed out in the car.”
She leaves and Buckley chuckles. “Got a great sense of humor,” he says, mistaking my tone as he always did. Then he sticks his fingers through two holes in the leather. Eyeholes. “Ridiculous. What is this world coming to? A fifteen-year-old boy dresses up like an eighties Bond villain in a black cloak and a black mask, abducts this guy and probably the others, too, then tries to sacrifice him, looks like. The fellas back at the station are going to love this. It sounds like something these boys picked up on T.V.”
David does not like Rashomon. He finds the film bloated and pretentious. David’s friends, of which I consider myself one, find this to be an odd comment since the film is only 88 minutes long. When I or another from our group have asked him, David will scratch his five-o’clock shadow that he gets from shaving every other day, and suggest that his friends should rewatch the film. He says that while, yes, it is one of Kurosawa’s leanest movies in terms of running time, he’s never understood why the director couldn’t do something, anything about the inherent repetitive nature of the film. David feels its use of multiple perspectives, while showing how different people may interpret an event, still center on the sexual act of a man and a young woman.
He’ll usually ask at this point something along the lines of, “Isn’t that, in some way, undermining Kurosawa’s intent?”
Usually at this point he’ll sit up in his chair and run his fingers on his left hand through his hair, inhaling, before asking, “How are we to know, as an audience, that all of these interpretations are not true? They all center on some poor woman being accosted, willingly or not, and there lies a certain special flaw in the cinema of Kurosawa. You can never know what happened, true. We can always construct our own interpretations, but really, aren’t we just assuming these interpretations? We’ve seen the film.”
He’ll usually pause here before continuing, “We know the facts but we can’t really decide which is the true event.”
He always stresses true in that way. He pauses briefly, before adding, “All of it is fake. It’s a damn movie. So Kurosawa still wants us to see a woman accosted.”
That is not David’s only complaint I've found. He’ll go on telling us that he knows everyone loves Kurosawa and it's just that his opinions differ from the mainstream. He’ll usually smirkily add, occasionally with a snort, that Kurosawa’s no Ozu, even on his best day. He usually states that Kurosawa's best day was when he directed Ran, by the way. One thing that we’ve all noticed about David at some point--I think Gale was the first to see this--see David pulling at his eyebrows obsessively. Gale told us later; then we all started seeing David do it. He apparently was a trichotillomaniac. When talking later, we noticed that he did it most when he’d go into one of his diatribes about Rashomon.
David typically hated most things Kurosawa. Except Ran. He liked that one. He would often describe the acting in Rashomon as “typical Japanese action fair” and yet again would bring in comparisons to Ozu and his, “ability to create stillness within a scene,” so that the actors were more like, “statues impersonating the roles of people, realizing a much truer essence of humanity,” or some other such bullshit. We honestly don’t know why we hang out with him some times. I think it's because it's sometimes fun to hang out with people who think they're smart. It doesn't really matter if they are or not, really, I just like to think that it fills the time of companionship in a way that isn't quite as boring, even if it is a little annoying.
I guess the key thing about Dave is that we all think, at least hope, that on some level he knows he sounds like a jerk, at least when talking about Kurosawa films. He knows none of us have ever seen Rashomon, let alone any of the other films he mentions. I think Gale said he saw half of Seven Samurai once. Gale said it was a cool flick, if a bit slow.
I finally sat down to watch Rashomon a few weeks ago. I don’t remember the reason why, but it was that perfect confluence of finishing a project for work, the wife being asleep, and the film popping up into my queue, announcing itself as something, “you may also like…” that led me to push play. I tried to talk about it the next time I saw David. I noticed his demeanor had skewed once I mentioned seeing the film. He suddenly wouldn't talk about the film as usual. He suddenly became very busy. It was through this that I ultimately became aware of one aspect of David's personality none of us in our group knew. David has never seen Rashomon.
by Nathan Rucker
by Maximilian Harry Schramel
It’s 4/20 and my dad is sixty to seventy
feet off the water, high up on a mast.
So he’s high as hell on this marvelous day.
High up on a mast.
Surely, he’s navigating Lake Pontchartrain,
blunt in hand, I mean, uh, jib sheet curved
around his wrist, sunglasses bobbing
above the cool sea, sticky bud packed deep
in the bong, yeah…let’s just say he’s
High up on a mast.
He’ll finish his voyage cruising into the harbor,
blistered hands lowering the mainsail, spliff
moist around his chapped lips, eyes red,
High up on a mast.
Obligatory 4/20 Sonnet
SchlepiPen is used by either spouse to inject a dose of sanity into a partner insisting upon bringing all luggage on vacation as carry-on.
EthiPen - administer for courage in fighting drug company lobbyists opposing fairness in prescription medicine pricing. Not to be confused with: EthniPen - restores pride to targets of ethnic slurs, for example, the popular variant, ‘GiuseppePen’’
SchweppiPen dispenses Schweppervesence, a mythical advertising buzzword from the ‘50’s, now at home in urban slang, and extending cool to a new demographic. "Keeping the schweppervesence / street ghetto essence inside us / cause it provides us / with the proper insite to guide us." - MC AC Vizualiza.
PrepiPen - for the ultimate in survival, this pen injects the chemical responsible for the long shelf-live of Twinkies into any perishable food. For a limited time, packaged with bonus syringe of actual filling.
JohnnyDeppiPen - inject Yorkshire Terriers or any other small breed, and the dogs are turned into plush toys. Once through Customs, they are easily reanimated with a splash of water. Convenient travel pack stores in pirate’s puffy shirt.
AleppoPen - should be plunged into the diplomatic thighs of UN Security Council dinner guests who bloviate about red lines or coalitions, to help induce some memory, any, of the Sarajevos of our recent past.
EpicuriPen - when the appreciation of fine food and drink gets the better of you, take a quick shot of this pen to cleanse the palate.
KlepiPen - there is no medicine in this pen. You just steal it. Packaged two to a box, with additional simulator, so you don’t have to steal your own.
StepiPen - Should any step in your recovery program go missing, one shot of the medication in this pen will restore your progress and keep you from throwing yourself down the nearest set of 12.
RepiPen - used to fortify pharmaceutical sales reps when they run out of EpiPen rebate slips.
BONUS 2-PAK!! In an effort to keep drug prices low, we’ve packaged these syringe twin-combos for the price of one, remedies for a hard-rock duo of maladies:
LedZeppiPen is administered by tour managers to touring rockstars to treat dyscalculia, difficulty in comprehending numbers, should they confuse the number “14” in a groupie’s age with “18”.
DefLeppiPen is applied upon losing an arm in a horrific motoring accident, to allow one to resume a brilliant drumming career without missing a beat.
The Epi Pens We Didn't Know We Needed
by Dave Petraglia
by Tracy M. King-Sanchez
Despite the unusual late September heat, the loud one wore a multi-colored knit cap, fitted snug against her Twenty’s-era, finger-waved coif. While the other donned clunky clogs, a putrid mix of brown and grey that clashed against Hello Kitty rainbow socks. Amira had spotted the women the moment they ambled to the menu board, examining it as if they understood a lick of French. Definitely American, thought Amira, as she guided them to their table and handed them menus.
Amira stood studying the women as they struggled to translate French cuisine into its American counterpart. Of course, a challenge they’d never meet. They were an odd pair. The loud one, built straight up and down, with large eyes that swallowed everything within its line of sight. The other, a super-sized cheeseburger away from being what Amira had heard black Americans refer to as “healthy”. Their skin color, a shade or two darker than those of Amira and her family back home.
“Poulet - that looks like pork chops,” said the one with an amplified roar.
“No, Madam, it’s chicken,” corrected Amira, as she stood waiting to take their order.
“Chicken? Well, it sounds like pork chops to me,” continued Loudmouth.
“It’s chicken in a lemon sauce, with potatoes mashed,” responded Amira. Americans, they knew it all, and Amira thought it best to correct with the slightest hint of detectable condescension.
“With the bone in?” asked the much quieter one.
“Yes, Madam,” answered Amira.
Amira had five more hours of this to go, with far more years than she wanted already under her belt. Waiting on over-indulgent Americans, their vocal cords sharpened against the rest of the tourists who visited Paris daily, was Amira’s job. A job she neither loved, nor hated, but rather performed with detached ambiguity. America had been her first choice. It was always the first choice. But with her limited English and heavy North African accent, France came in a close second. Her French was impeccable. After all, it was her first language. A language her father insisted would open roads for his sons, and side streets for his daughter.
“Is that slow-cooked with lemons or are they just added on top afterwards?” asked Loudmouth.
“Pardon?” responded Amira, although she understood perfectly the absurdity of the question.
“The lemons, are they in the chicken?” asked Loudmouth, this time gesturing as if she were trying to communicate with an infant from another planet.
“No, Madam, there are no lemons in the chicken,” answered Amira.
“No, not in the chicken. With the chicken.”
“Yes, Madam, the lemon is cooked with the chicken. And sage.”
“Oh, that sounds splendid,” said the quieter one.
No, it wasn’t splendid. Just a chicken leg and some lemon. A meal her uncle, who was head cook, prepared a thousand times at home, and for less than half the price. Silly Americans, always willing to pay for an experience. Moving to a country where you weren’t welcomed was an experience. Trying subpar food, in a subpar cafe, was just plain… well, American.
“Make that two chickens,” said the loud one.
“No, wait. How’s the beef? That’s what that is, right? B.O.E.U.F?”
“Oui, Madam. Comes with potatoes, too.”
“What’s with all the potatoes? I thought we were in France, not Ireland.”
Amira would laugh if she had the energy or the inclination to appease this woman, but she had stopped appeasing somewhere along her second day on the job. Instead, she simply smiled, a smile perfected over the past 7 years at Cafe Faire Un Rêve, a cramped cafe tucked into a forgotten corner of the Marais. Thank the heavens for nepotism and daughterless uncles.
“Would Madam perhaps like poisson?” asked Amira.
“Ah-ha! Little Mermaid. That’s fish, right?” retorted the mighty-mouth-of-America.
This was Amira’s fault. She couldn’t leave well enough alone. She liked her punishment served piping hot, if not boiling over. While growing up back home, her older brothers were more than willing to serve, taking full advantage of the pecking order, an order she still struggled to advance.
“So, what’s the fish special?” asked Loudmouth.
“It’s bream,” answered Amira.
“Bream? What in the world is that?” asked Ms. Loudmouth, turning up her nose.
“It’s a fish, Madam.”
“Cheryl!” said the quiet one.
“What? Does the fish come with potatoes mashed, too?”
Amira now had a name to go with the mouth. Cheryl, the loud mouth. Cheryl, the obnoxious. Cheryl, order your overpriced, tourist-trap-crap and get the hell out of my sight.
“No, Madam. It comes with vegetables,” said Amira.
“Oh, like ratatouille?” asked Cheryl
“No, Madam, just, how do you say? Ordinary? Yes, ordinary carrots and zucchini.”
The only saving grace, it was Friday, which meant the majority of money-laden tourists made their way to fancier cafes and restaurants. Places where they’d spend close to a week’s worth of pay on food sliced at a more artistic angle by a chef who insisted on world-order kitchen aristocracy. Amira would never work at one of those establishments. While her French accent was without fault, everything else about her was a reminder to those who guarded the ladder that Amira had climbed as high as she could. She was an outsider, only a few rungs higher than these two women who were willing to go thousands of miles to try a fish that could easily be consumed in America.
“I’ll take the poisson,” stated Cheryl.
“Oui, Madam. And to drink?”
“The aperitifs, can you offer a suggestion?” asked the quieter one.
Find a McDonald’s, Amira wanted to say.
“Would you like something sweet?”
“There’s Kir, a black currant liquor with white wine.”
“I bet you it tastes just like Sangria. Only a lot, lot, lot smaller. And way more expensive,” admonished Cheryl.
“There’s Kir Royal, made with sparkling wine,” said Amira.
“Ah, fancy, smancy,” said Cheryl.
Amira knew she shouldn’t lump these two in with the others. But Americans had that thing that haunted her. A reminder of what luck and opportunities got you, even if the color of one’s skin determined one’s allotted ration. How bad could they have had it? For here they sat, privilege on display, arrogance in full bloom. Watching these women brought back memories of her father, and his jealous admiration for a land he’d never see.
“Americans and their need for purpose,” is what she remembers most about her father’s rants. “Determined and steadfast. Words they swish around in their mouths until the taste becomes too bitter to swallow.”
But she knew her father dreamt of America. Spent most of his hours working to send his sons to the land of purpose. Amira did not know her purpose and, if pressed, would confess to never desire one. Had she been born an ant, or belonged to some rebel forces, she would have been given her role to play in a bigger picture painted by hands other than her own. There was no such thing as purpose.
There was just the rut of every day. Waking and opening your eyes to the stillness. Washing an aging face whose lines cached secrets and untold stories. Counting the gongs emitted from Notre Dame, as the early-morning faithful mingled with the wishful. Passing the once handsome, but now soft in all the wrong places, butcher who only offered a smile when not surrounded by other men with traceable French ancestry. Opening doors, upturning chairs, filling cups, emptying plates, and pushing aside the desire to want anything beyond the measured breaths of air.
Stepping off the plane, Tonya prayed she hadn’t made the wrong decision.
“A free trip to Paris. Who passes that up?” asked her mother.
But everything had a price, friendship included. They’d met freshman year. The only black girls in the dorm, and part of a small handful at the university. Cheryl had come in on a scholarship, while Tonya’s mother managed to send her only child to college by scaling the Amway pyramid. Those four years were difficult, neither prepared for the arduous and unrealistic task of representing an entire race. Tonya responded by locking herself in her room. While Cheryl joined, then ran, every club and organization on campus. After graduation, Law School, followed by stints at numerous nonprofits and consulting firms, until, finally, Cheryl emerged as one of the most sought-after lobbyists on Capitol Hill.
Fifteen years later, and no closer to her bliss, Tonya stumbled into mortuary science. She spent hours embalming and dressing the dead, preparing them for an after-life she herself did not believe in.
“It’s a noble job,” declared her uncle during a Christmas gathering, where she’d been the butt of a dozen undead jokes. “You might say, a family tradition. Your great granddad and his brother owned a funeral parlor in South Carolina. After they set it ablaze and chased them out of town, that was the end of that.”
Tonya had never heard the story, despite it being told at every family get-together. She’d always been able to tune out what she deemed unnecessary chit-chat, instead, focusing on the untold stories locked away within the folds and wrinkles of life’s true master storytellers. The same stories she washed from the frozen faces at the funeral home.
She’d lost track of Cheryl for years. Then, one day, she showed up at a funeral.
“Not a person in this room could stand that man. But respect? Damn straight. That’s all you need,” said Cheryl, scanning the room filled with a “diversity” of empowered white men.
They’d agreed to meet for dinner the next day, where Cheryl dominated the conversation.
“What’s it been? 10 years?” asked Cheryl.
“17, almost 18,” said Tonya.
“Are you fucking kidding me? I just talked to you like yesterday. Anyway, what’s up with you? Kids, husband? Wife?”
“Nope,” said Tonya, taking the bait for what led to 25 breathless minutes of Cheryl bragging about her husband and 2.5 kids. And, of course, the dog. Tonya listened without listening, paying close attention to the furrowed lines above Cheryl’s eyebrows. The keeper of her realm. There Tonya saw the things which could never be voiced, in fear of fracturing the skeletal framework of an invisible life. Tonya saw Cheryl, even though she refused to hear her.
With Brooklyn and DC a four hour bus ride between them, Tonya and Cheryl began making monthly trips, then bi-weekly, until finally swapping every other weekend once Cheryl’s kids had gone off to college, and her husband, Gregg, spent most of his time locked away in his man-cave.
“What the hell he does down there, beats me,” said Cheryl during one of their scheduled lunches. “He’s got his life, I got mine.”
That was the first Tonya had heard the crack in Cheryl’s crystal marriage.
“Everything okay?” she asked, unprepared for the anomalous floodgates Cheryl might release. But, instead, Cheryl was Cheryl.
“Girl, that’s marriage. Maybe one of these days you’ll find out.”
Tonya didn’t want to be married and wasn’t sure she even liked men. Not that she enjoyed the company of women any better. Tonya valued the silence solitude awarded. Alone with her thoughts, she built worlds where everything was not only possible, but bearable. Every word uttered, every thought imagined, initiated by her own wants and desires. Desires that butted against the world she was forced to wake to each day. Tonya had one secret wish: that her hands held the power to heal, that her fingertips yielded electrons of rejuvenated life, that the lips she planted upon the forehead of each body placed in her care would awaken a soul she believed resided in the vortex of one’s mind. That she had the power to raise the dead. The only purpose Tonya would ever be satisfied in achieving.
"Two Royals?” asked Amira.
“You know what, I’m sorry. I’ll just have a glass of water,” said Tonya.
“I could recommend something else,” said Amira.
“No troubles,” said Tonya.
“No, Madam, no troubles at all. Maybe you’d like a glass of wine. White? Red?” continued Amira, turning her full attention to Tonya.
“No, she’s going to have a Royal with me,” interrupted Cheryl.
“Are you sure?” Amira asked Tonya.
Cheryl raised her right hand. Palm aimed high. An act of dismissal performed by those who deemed their existence more worthy than others. Tourists were not the only offenders. Street merchants raised weathered fingers as Amira haggled over bruised fruits and foggy-eyed fish. Immigration officers returned Amira’s paperwork with a dismissive palm and shrug. Her uncle, both palms raised, as if in peaceful surrender, protested Amira’s continuous pleas for privacy and independence. While countless lovers, with limp promises of forevermore, never stuck around long enough to raise palms, or hands.
“Question. The Nicoise salad, is that tuna out of a can, or do you just slop a bloody piece of rare fish on top of some greens?” asked Cheryl.
“Which would you prefer, Madam?” asked Amira.
“You know what, just bring me the beef,” dismissed Cheryl.
“I’ll take the salad. Whichever way it’s prepared,” said Tonya.
Amira noticed the look Cheryl shot her friend and wondered about the bonds of sisterhood. The only daughter in a household of four sons, Amira marveled at the relationships built on the commonality of one’s anatomy and position in the world. Young girls giggling as they hopscotched from innocence to insight. Teenagers formulating and comparing dreams of ambition, but never the nightmares that stood watch. Young women, their domestic lives on hold, locking hands to cross thresholds, surpass milestones, though never breaking ceilings built from bricks of aristocracy and testosterone. Mothers and wives dictating edicts used to govern households of industry, with the sole manufacturing in perpetuation. A perpetual wanting, never satiated, never quenched, but always satisfying that part of them tucked snug and safe in the womb, bypassing the clitoris.
This is how Amira imagined women and friendship. But there was something off-putting about the relationship of these two. A disconnect in their connection. Yes, opposite, but not in the way opposites attract. But in that way a gazelle knows her role to the lioness’s survival. If one must feed on something, why should it be foreign and unattached.
“I’ve been waiting to tell you something,” said Cheryl to Tonya. “There’s a reason I brought you here.”
Tonya waited patiently, knowing before she knew. The tight creases around Cheryl’s mouth, mostly concentrated on her upper lip, had betrayed her all afternoon. Each line spoke of regret, of pain, despite words emitted with such confidence and self-assurance. Her lost-and-found friend was keeping a secret. Not the kind that made you lean in with anticipation, but the kind that arrested every emotion earned since birth. She was dying.
“Shit,” said Amira, who had not realized she’d been standing at their table.
“You got that right,” said Cheryl, smiling at Amira.
“Pardon,” said Amira, walking away, though keeping her ears on alert.
Tonya continued examining Cheryl’s mouth. Instinctively, Cheryl brushed imaginary crumbs from her lips.
“Cancer?” asked Tonya.
“Skin. Damn, does God have a sense of humor.”
“No one dies of skin cancer,” said Tonya, finally meeting Cheryl’s eyes with her own.
“Well, I guess I’m a nobody. Malignant Melanoma. I’m a chocolate M&M. How you like that?”
“At least you still have a sense of humor.”
“That’s the least of what I have?”
“I don’t know. What did you want me to say?”
“How about something original, like ‘that sucks, but I didn’t like you anyway,’” said Cheryl, staring directly through Tonya. “You tolerate me. Always have.”
Finally, thought Tonya, as she let out a long, winded breath. It was true; she had never liked Cheryl. Loved? Yes. But liked? Not once. Not ever. Not on that very first day Cheryl walked into their dorm room demanding the left side closest to the door because of some paralyzing fear of being trapped in another fire. Nor during sophomore year, when Cheryl became the feminist crusader, always chastising Tonya’s apathetic stand. Not even after Cheryl returned senior year with a muted - but never invisible - arrogance brought on by the sudden and unexpected death of her mother. Cheryl was opinionated, gruff and stubborn to a fault. The fault? Her overwhelming need to be seen and heard. If only she hadn’t been so darn ambitious, thought Tonya.
“You think we would’ve been friends, you know, real friends, under different circumstances?” asked Cheryl, as Amira sat their plates in front of them, then pretended to busy herself at the next table.
“Does it matter?”
“You’re right, we wouldn’t.”
“I still plan to be there for you.”
“It’s funny the shit that binds us. Blood. Skin. Tragedy.”
It was just like Cheryl to view her life and circumstance as some sort of waged war, thought Tonya. Dying of cancer, she’d give her that, but Cheryl was no tragic hero.
“What about Gregg and the kids?” asked Tonya.
“They don’t have cancer.”
“Doesn’t mean they’re not suffering,” said Tonya.
“From what?” asked Cheryl, seriously waiting for a response.
“They’re your family. Don’t you think they care?”
“Of course, they fucking care. But what am I supposed to do with that?”
“Please, spare me the funeral crap. I’ve three months, five at best, and I don’t plan to spend it worrying about how my family is trying to cope with my dying. If anything, they should be out conquering the world,” said Cheryl.
“You always wanted too much.”
“Oh, shut up,” said Cheryl, as she stood and pushed away the untouched plate of steak au poivre, the rising steam merging to meet her anger. “I’m not dead yet,” she continued, fishing through a démode, yet pristine, Fendi handbag, the last gift given to her by her mother.
Tonya watched in silence as her maybe-friend threw down 50 Euros and stomped off. Right, a free trip to Paris; who passes that up? Tonya sat there waiting for elusive emotions to take hold. Instead, a small hand landed on her shoulders.
“Can I get you anything else?” asked Amira.
A new friend. A world without expectations. A life lived, but not worn.
“No, I’ll just sit here for a bit, if you don’t mind.”
But Amira did mind. Why? Because everyone had the right to feel cheated out of life, no matter how small the cheat, or life. That woman Cheryl. That woman with the loud and obnoxious boom to her voice. That woman being eaten from the inside out. That woman dying having left so much unsaid, undone. That woman who, just a few minutes ago, Amira wanted to banish from existence. That woman. That, woman. That. Woman.
“Will your friend be okay?” asked Amira, hoping Tonya would translate the question into what she really wanted to say: go after her.
Instead, Tonya shrugged, and settled deeper into the chair. Amira wondered if this is how her father reacted the day her mother walked out. Had her departure given him a freedom he longed for? Had the furrowed brows, gritted teeth and clenched fists given way to the wide-mouthed laughs he shared with his sons, or to the delicate fingers that plated Amira’s hair, or to the relaxed shoulders his children settled into on those nights fear overtook reason? The cafe began to fill with the regulars who found security in an early evening glass of wine and people gazing. A pastime honored and treasured by most Parisians. To gaze on a foreign body, an intrusion neither welcomed nor rebuffed by those whose footsteps imprinted hundreds of untold stories. Amira watched the detached American, whose eyes were now locked on an old man who struggled to cross the street. His hands balancing the air in front of his knees, the only thing that kept him from tumbling forth.
“Excuse me,” said Tonya, rising to meet the old man just as he reached the lip of the sidewalk. “Let me help you.”
The old man nodded, taking hold of Tonya’s hand as she deposited him safely in front of a cigar shop next to the cafe.
The kindness of strangers had never impressed Amira. Too often people mistook decency for common sense. At the head of that class, always the Americans. Their big tips in place of a decent living wage. Smiles hidden behind indifference. Pontificating at the altar of God and his blessings, as if their begotten sins cleansed their righteous act of policing those with histories too long and exposed to entomb under stars and stripes of glory. Amira watched as Tonya returned to the cafe, her American smile fixed in place, a salute to her weighted act of kindness.
Tonya lingered for another twenty or thirty minutes before summoning Amira and paying the check.
“Au revoir,” said Tonya, converting the softly-silent V to a hard W.
Amira spent the rest of her day more agitated than usual. Although she took orders, and made suggestions no different than before, her guiding compass was off by a few meters. Hours later, having left work to meet up with a recent lover, her footsteps failed to match his ritualistic, fore-played stroll along the Seine. Under worn sheets, she barely acknowledged his tongue as it stabbed against walls un-stretched by life. Walls regulated to siphoning swilled armies from stiffened, emancipated members.
Over the next several days, Amira continued to think about Cheryl. She’d hear her voice in the voices of other demanding and dismissive patrons. Or see her face in the faces of black women whose features did not mimic the wide, flat nose, large, piercing eyes, or perfectly-aligned teeth hidden behind lips skilled in the formation of vowels and consonants charged with annihilating those callow enough to go up against Cheryl.
Amira should have been surprised, but wasn’t, when Cheryl found her way back to the cafe a few weeks later.
“Bon jour,” said Cheryl.
“Bon jour, Cheryl”, said Amira, as if greeting a long lost friend. “How have you been?”
Amira smiled as Cheryl shrugged and took a table in the far corner of the cafe.
“Today, you’re lucky. We have your favorite. Poulet, pork chops,” Amira winked.
“Girl,” said Cheryl, shaking her head while fighting off a smile too big to contain.
And that’s how it began. Three times a week, Cheryl made her way to the cafe. Sometimes she ate, but, often, her appetite failed. Instead, she’d sip the special tea prepared by Amira’s uncle. Soon, Amira’s breaks coincided with Cheryl’s visits. Where Cheryl was once loud, she now sat in silence, the two new friends staring out into the street as tourists rushed in and out of boutiques and specialty shops that sold items Amira could never afford, and which Cheryl felt provided a false sense of hope.
On the third week, as they both sat sipping her uncle’s brew, Cheryl reached over and took hold of Amira’s hand.
“I’m scared,” said Cheryl. “But it doesn’t trump how angry I am.”
“Come,” said Amira, grabbing the paper placemat and flipping it over. She removed a pen from her shirt pocket. ”Draw.”
“What? My anger?” asked Cheryl, a dismissive hand waved at Amira.
“No, the cancer,” said Amira.
“What the hell would I do that for?”
“Trust me,” said Amira, handing Cheryl the pen.
Amira waited, a skill she was born with. “This is stupid,” insisted Cheryl.
“Is it big or small? Eyes, dents?” gestured Amira.
“Claws,” said Cheryl, rolling her eyes.
“Draw,” said Amira, tapping the blank mat.
When had I stopped imagining, scribbling outside the lines? Was I four, or eight, or even sixteen? But here I am, forty-eight. I know I won’t make it to fifty. Or forty-nine, for that matter. But those are just numbers, right? Measurements of time and space, and all that good shit. Amira wants to throw me a going away party; have everyone come dressed as their favorite dead person. Says she’s coming as Dihya, some Algerian goddess, or queen, or whatnot. She’s serious, too. Gotta love her. I know I do. I mean, really love her. And not that unconditional love, either. Tell me a relationship without conditions, and I’ll sell you a mule who shits gold.
My girl Amira, she’s got conditions. A list full. At the top, don’t expect pity. Kindness, respect, love, but never pity. Not one single drop. Not even on my worse days. And let me tell you, they’re adding up. She knows they’re coming before I do. I wake all bothered and agitated, or sometimes, you know, just stuck inside myself - all she does is hand me that stupid drawing. Works every time. I didn’t get it at first. I just sat there, thinking about Gregg and the kids. I knew they were angry with me for leaving. But you know how some animals go away from the nest or herd to die? Maybe I saw it that way.
Anyway, Amira wouldn’t let me put down that pen, not until I drew something. So to get her off my back, I drew a tiny dot, barely visible, right in the center. But then, I don’t know, I guess I started thinking. I mean, really thinking. What if that’s how it starts? A tiny speck. You barely see or feel it, but it’s there. Then that speck multiplies, moving away from the center like they’re trying to escape. Getting bigger and bigger. Turning into circles, and squares, and triangles. Hell, even a few trapezoids. It was like I was a kid again, sitting at the kitchen table drawing with my mother. God, were those drawings awful.
Finally, I stopped, and sat staring at the damn thing. You know how when you stare at something so long, it starts moving? I’m telling you, they were crawling. Climbing over one another. I swear, a few did backflips. And that’s when I lost it. Remember the game Hungry, Hungry Hippos, where you have to smash the head, or the marbles, or something? At first, I started with my thumbs. Squashing one at a time. Before I knew it, I was banging the shit out of that table. Bam. Bam. BAM. Let me tell you something about the French. They got “Meh” on lock.
Oh, you could tell the tourists. They went running as fast as they could. But, of course, an American couple, though Amira swore up and down they were Canadian, tried to come over to see if I was okay. Amira nipped that shit right in the bud. But them never-wear-more-than-three-colors Parisian peeps, they went right on sipping their wine and puffing their cigarettes. And Amira, her crazy ass sat right there, too. She wasn’t looking at me, but I could tell she was watching. When I was done, she gave me a little pat on the back, asked what I wanted for dinner, then picked up the picture and said, no lie, “Your cancer looks like sperm. Call your husband.” I laughed so hard, thought I would die right there.
I called Gregg. And the kids. Another one of those conditions on Amira’s list. No running away. I get it. We all got scars. Most of which never heal. Either ‘cause they go too deep, or we just keep picking at them. I know I’m supposed to die with dignity. Well, fuck dignity, and fuck dying. Even though I know my time’s up. I can feel it in every breath. The nurse says it’s the cancer. Amira says it’s the D.C. pollution.
“So many politicians, how do you say, talking shit,” said Amira.
Yeah, and nobody talks as much shit as Amira. She got something to say about everybody. And I mean, everybody. She calls it critiques constructives. I call it good-old gossip. Man, I’m gonna miss her. I’m hoping she’ll stay after I’m gone. She doesn’t want to talk about it. Keeps saying first things first. I’m more worried with the last. But I know Gregg and Tonya will convince her. Tonya comes up now, two, three times a week. She’s different with Amira. All chatty. Even started dressing all bougie-like. Last week, Tonya brought up dying, and the right to choose. Said she’d pull my plug, no problem. Not in those exact words, but pretty damn close. Though Amira’s the one got me thinking.
“You can’t choose when you’re born, so why would you choose when you die?” she asked.
That irked me. I couldn’t figure out why. Not at first. I left it alone, pretended like I didn’t hear. I do a lot of that lately. Blocking everything out. Figure I should get used to the silence. But I was mad. Even when I woke this morning and Amira handed me my picture. Of course, those things started flipping out, moving all over the place. That’s when it hit me. Why I was mad, and shit. The choice to be born was always ours. We force our way out, then take off running. Every movement, in every moment, our choice. A fist in the mouth. A gas-tinged smile. Rolling over. Those first spastic steps. A word. A sentence. A scream. My last breath. Choice after choice after choice. It’s all about control. So, seeing as I’ve never been big on winters, I think I’ll sit this one out.
When Life Gives You Poulet, Make Pork Chops
by Gabriela Frank
When Holly plunged her hand into the plastic bucket, the eyeballs, a sea of bobbing blue irises, seemed to sigh, “Oh, well—whaddaya gonna do?” The pungent preservative solution felt cold and slimy on her skin as she plucked out an eyeball, bloodshot and filmy-white. The specimen held gingerly between her fingers, Holly dripped formaldehyde onto the scuffed linoleum floor as she carried the eyeball back to the lab table.
"Shoulda worn gloves,” Meredith grimaced as Holly placed the eye onto the examination tray. “Gross. It stinks.”
Holly shrugged, flicking a glance at Scott across the room. She sort of liked the idea that the formaldehyde might penetrate her hands, give her some invincible super power.
“Look at this,” cackled Chris, dancing lewdly in front of Amber and Jessica’s table. He held two sheep eyeballs in front of his skinny boy-chest, turning them wildly in his fingers. “These are my seeing eye nipples!” he crowed. The girls tittered, pretending to be grossed out. They, along with Scott and Chris, were part of the Power Circle, a force against which Holly and Meredith had bonded since elementary. The Ambers and Jessicas, MacKenzies, Peytons and Taylors were the keepers of the Pretty-Girl Secrets like flawless vamp nail polish, skinny jeans, and smooth, cascading waves of long hair.
“Chris Benner, I said one eyeball,” drawled Mr. Lemons from the front of the room. “Put the other back in the bucket so we can get going. Chop-chop!” A few kids laughed. Mr. Lemons was alright. He never handed out detentions and always hung out to chat after the bell, unlike most teachers who dashed to the lounge, seemingly as desperate as their middle-school charges to escape.
“Okay, everyone. Turn over your eyeballs and find the dark line. That’s where the first incision goes,” Mr. Lemons called to the rows of thirty-six students, half of them observing, the other half brandishing shiny scalpels.
Meredith, with her notebook, stood back. “Be careful,” she warned.
“Of what? It’s a eyeball, not a bomb,” Holly drawled, darting another glance at Scott before making a perfect slice.
“Did you give him The Note yet?” Meredith whispered.
“Shhhhh!” Holly hissed. “No. I’m waiting for the right time.”
“Bullshit. You’re chicken.”
“I’m not the one afraid of a stupid eyeball,” Holly smirked, glancing at Chris and Scott, who were horsing around. Mr. Lemons had put both of them up front since the first day.
“Scott will never know you’re alive if you don’t give him that note,” Meredith grumbled.
The Note was practically unreadable anyway. Holly had carried it since sixth grade, waiting for the right moment to declare her love, but Scott had been distracted by Amber G. and, later that year, Amber P. In seventh, he went out with Jessica M. and MacKenzie H. in direct succession, so Holly never had a chance—even if she had managed to smooth her frizzy auburn hair. This year, Scott went with Jessica S. and Jessica B. before a couple of MacKenzies, then—after a very public break-up with Peyton J.—had remained single.
As afraid as she was to believe it, Holly thought she actually noticed Scott looking in her direction in class lately. Had he finally noticed her on his own? But that was crazy. “Mer, give it a rest, okay?” Holly sighed. Her next slice released a splotch of clear jelly from the eyeball. “I’ll do it when I’m ready.”
“God, that’s disgusting,” Meredith smirked. “Well, anyway, I told him that you like him.”
“What?!” Holly said, dropping the scalpel with a clatter.
“You okay back there?” Mr. Lemons called, the whole class turning to look.
“Fine! Fine!” Holly shouted nervously. Scott darted a glance at her and grinned.
“See? He noticed you,” Meredith whispered, elbowing Holly.
"For the record, I hate you,” Holly sputtered, tears stinging her eyes. Scott turned back to look at her again just as she looked over at him. Oh-shit-oh-shit, she thought, looking away. Her parents would never allow her to go on a date, not at thirteen. She’d look even lamer than she already did if he asked her out and she had to say no. The Power Circle girls bragged in between classes about giving blow-jobs, while Holy had only ever seen a picture of a penis once when Meredith sneaked her brother’s laptop to look at porn online. Across the room, Amber and Jessica’s laughter trilled like silver chimes as Chris and Scott pretended to sneeze out their eyeballs onto the black lab table in unison.
After the bell, Holly rushed out of class.
“Holy shit,” Meredith swore as they approached their lockers that afternoon. A buzzing crowd had gathered. Someone had scrawled a huge red heart in lipstick on the lockers and, inside the heart, the words, “Be mine?”
“See?! I told you!” Meredith squealed.
“‘Scuse me,” Amber G. sniffed, pushing her way past Holly, her hair skinned back into a perfect blonde top-bun. She blushed proudly as she opened her locker, exchanged books, and closed it with a metallic clunk. It was Amber’s locker, of course, not Holly’s, that bore the heart.
“Walk you to class?” Scott asked, parting the crowd to take her hand. He didn’t look at Holly, not once. She wanted to die.
“Bitch,” Meredith swore as they walked off. “She’ll break his heart again, just like in sixth.”
Holly’s face flushed. She bit her lip. She couldn’t bear the insulting lipstick heart beating from Amber’s locker as she dialed the combination, her fingers shaky and still smelling of formaldehyde. “Boys are crap,” Meredith swore, gently touching Holly’s shoulder. Though her lip quivered, Holly hesitated to agree.
Upon opening her locker door, Holly found a stringy shriveled sheep’s eye hanging from the coat hook. The note, also written in red lipstick, proclaimed, “I’m watching you!”
“Fucking Chris Benner,” Meredith groaned. Neither of them touched it. “On the bright side, maybe he likes you.”
The Bright Side
by Julie Murphy
Who Lives Here
Definitely a rodent, probably
a squirrel, the mechanic told me
of the nest he removed
from the engine compartment.
Huge, he said, complete
with two lemons and a tangerine,
thus solving two mysteries at once—
the fruit that slipped out
of my pocket when I dashed
through a downpour, and after,
the wild scent my car had taken on.
I imagine that squirrel, every night climbing
up through the wheel well, balancing
along some hose to the warmth
of the engine block.
I’m incapable of condemning
it, and really I hardly think
of a squirrel as a rodent,
more as a fact of life, a warrior
of adversity with a full twitchy tail,
silver backed, ferocious
in its scolding. I see him
on the high branches
of the live oak, leaping
with a trust unknown
to my flesh and blood,
and think of the competition
and danger—jays, wood rats, bobcats,
not to mention the coyotes
that howl and yip in heated frenzies—
how that squirrel returns
to the warmth, to the steel safety
surrounding him, while the night
spins on in its violent beauty.
by Marisa Manuel
The tick bites down on Harriet’s neck. She wishes to squeeze it, but she refrains. There’s a way to remove ticks, a proper way; pull them off too quickly, they’ll squirt out poison.
She itches the surrounding skin, and her engagement ring brushes against the bug. She’s been with Derrick a year—far too long— and they’re about to be joined for much longer.
Harriet’s too poor for Derrick’s ring, but in a matter of days, their riches will merge.
How strange, she thinks, her lips brushing against Derrick’s temple. I thought only poor homes had ticks.
Brett Connors graduates in May 2016 from the University of Houston with a B.A. in Creative Writing. Hoping to cultivate a career in publishing, he worked as an Assistant Prose Editor for the Glass Mountain publication during 2016. Previously he has published poetry, creative nonfiction, and an essay in the Creative Communications anthologies. He was a finalist in the University of Houston’s Student Success Essay Contest in 2014 and earned an honorable mention in 2012 from the Scholastic Writing Awards for his short fiction. Like all artists, Brett spends his free time exploring his various passions and pondering the future.
Todd J. Donery
Todd is a professional photographer based in Minneapolis with a Associates degree in Photography and Digital Imaging from the Minneapolis Community Technical College. Along with Todd’s commercial photography he is also a fine art photographer, and he has had his work published in multiple publications, and publicly exhibits his work.
Gabriela Frank’s fiction and essays appear in Flash Fiction Magazine, Two Hawks Quarterly, Brevity, The Rumpus, Word Riot and ARCADE. A fiction reader for Indianola Review, she lives and writes in Seattle.
Tracy M. King-Sanchez
Tracy M. King-Sanchez is an award-winning screenwriter, as well as a playwright, filmmaker and writer. Her short film, “Artistic Closure,” screened at the Stony Brook, Big Apple and Great Lakes Independent Film Festivals. Her writings have appeared in The Southampton Review, The Normal School, Atticus Reviews, as well as other publications. Tracy received her MFA from Stony Brook Southampton and completed a VONA/VOICES Residency. She is currently working on a collection of short stories set in Paris and a memoir (The Sum of All My Parts).
Marisa Manuel is an MFA candidate at the University of Memphis, where she works as an editor for The Pinch. She has four younger siblings, three dogs, and two very supportive parents. Her favorite genres are horror and fantasy, and she has a special interest in anything involving clowns or zombies. In the future, she hopes to write for a living and devote her free time to community service.
Julie Murphy teaches Embodied Writing at John F. Kennedy University, and through the years, has led and taught numerous writing workshops. She also teaches poetry, as a volunteer, in the Salinas Valley State Prison. A member of the Academy of American Poets, Julie has work forthcoming in CALYX Journal and Pennsylvania Literary Journal.
A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia’s writing and art has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Bartleby Snopes, Cheap Pop, Crack the Spine, Chicago Literati, Gambling the Aisle, Hayden’s Ferry, McSweeney’s, Necessary Fiction, New Pop Lit, North American Review, Per Contra, Pithead Chapel, Prick of the Spindle, Popular Science, Prairie Schooner, and others.
Nathan recently won a Maier Award as well as a WV Writers Emerging Prose award for 2016 and he has also published in multiple issues of Et Cetera. Nathan holds (rather tenderly) a Master’s degree at Marshall University and lives in Huntington, West Virginia, with his partner and daughter. They live in a townhouse. He says it’s nice.
Maximilian Harry Schramel
Maximilian Harry Schramel is a 24 year old student currently pursuing his MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. He is from New Orleans, Louisiana and has an odd hobby of chronicling the weird idiosyncrasies of his family. If only they could stop him, the world might be a better place.
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